Week 9. Amusement Parks and World Fairs

Week 9. “The Problem of the Twentieth Century is the Problem of the Color Line”: Jack Johnson & Segregated Entertainment


We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
       We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!

Sample Newspaper Articles on the Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries Fight of the Century

 Early Examples of Popular American Music 1898-1910 

Coney Island Multimedia to accompany Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century 

View of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
View of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Elizabeth, N.J. : A.S. Campbell, c1896.
Elizabeth, N.J. : A.S. Campbell, c1896.
Five bathing beauties posed on beach. 1897.
Five bathing beauties posed on beach. 1897.
Steeplechase 1907
Steeplechase 1907
Steeplechase Park at night, Coney Island, N. Y. 1930. Boston Public Library.
Steeplechase Park at night, Coney Island, N. Y. 1930. Boston Public Library.
Human roulette wheel, new Steeplechase Park. 1908.
Human roulette wheel, new Steeplechase Park. 1908.
View of people on the Razzle Dazzle amusement ride at Luna Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.
View of people on the Razzle Dazzle amusement ride at Luna Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Razzle Dazzle, Coney Island. 1986.
Razzle Dazzle, Coney Island. 1986.


The Earthquake Floor Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari's Dreamland's Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1910.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari’s Dreamland’s Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1910.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari's Dreamland's Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1909.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari’s Dreamland’s Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1909.
Luna Park in Coney Island 1910
Luna Park in Coney Island 1910
The Flip Flap, Coney Island. 1906.
The Flip Flap, Coney Island. 1906.

Night Scene at Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]Depiction of Steeplechase Park at Night with decorative lights and cololrs. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Night Scene at Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]Depiction of Steeplechase Park at Night with decorative lights and cololrs. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.

I recommend this documentary for a great overview of Coney Island history (complete with creepy carnival music throughout).

“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis Meet me at the fair Don’t tell me the lights are shining any place but there We will dance the Hoochie Coochie I will be your tootsie wootsie If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis Meet me at the fair.”

–-Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis

Multimedia Related to World’s Fair History

The 1944 Judy Garland film Meet Me In St. Louis which debuted the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” chronicles a family as they anticipate the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair in New York (1964)

Weekly Assignment and Guided Reading Questions for Thursday

Select one of our guided reading questions (below) and provide your answer using evidence from either Amusing the Million or Female Spectacle.

  • How do the “female spectacles” that Glenn describes compare with the performance of masculinity in Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show? In what ways did these women and Cody both perform gender, or use performance to shape popular ideas about specific aspects of American society?
  • What is the key determinant of female performers’ independence and freedom in popular culture? Which new institutional practices within the theater made it possible for women to break new ground?
  • Do you buy the subtitle (and the author’s argument)? Can we find the roots of modern feminism in the theater? Why or why not?
  • What role does audience participation play in Vaudeville? At the World’s Fair? At Coney Island?
  • How is the human body being used in popular culture in new ways at Coney Island? What revolutionary change took place?
  • What inspired George C. Tilyou and what major innovation did he make to American popular culture and entertainment?
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President-Elect of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (PBS, 2019).

8 responses to “Week 9: Silent Film & Segregated Amusements

  1. At the start of the 20th century, racial segregation became increasingly visible between whites and African Americans. Unforgivable Darkness describes a time in which “Blacks were no longer enslaved, but not yet truly free.” While leaders in the black community held various beliefs about how to minimize the color line, W.E.B. Du Bois endorsed the idea of the Talented Tenth, in which the most skilled blacks who achieved education had a social responsibility to uplift their community. Du Bois himself personified this image, as a Harvard graduate. He wrote about his own “double consciousness” of being both black and an American, and to console the two identities, he aimed to achieve success through “beat[ing] my mates at examination time, or beat[ing] them as a foot-race…I would wrest from them [the prizes]. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way.” Du Bois planned to prove his worth, and the worth of his people, by achieving equal, if not greater, success to that of a white man.

    Likewise, Jack Johnson can be seen as a parallel figure: a black man of extreme talent. In boxing, Johnson was able to achieve success through his skill and athleticism alone, regardless of his skin color. Because the facts dictate the victor in the ring, he built his respected name based on punches thrown. While his success as a black boxer became recognized, hiis flashy demeanor, celebrity status, and behavior with white women was seen as a “perilous threat” to established practices of unequal separation between the races. The implications of his winning included more than a belt and title, but also acted as a political statement regarding the status of colored people and their physical and mental abilities.

  2. All of the readings for this week discussed how African Americans could still not be themselves in a society run by white people. Sure, they were “free” but they were not really allowed to do anything without being persecuted, and in this way they were still slaves to white society. There was still large racial tensions with a visible color line emerging within the time of impending segregation. Seen especially in the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, fear among black people spread, and this allowed for the hiding of one’s culture. Blacks hid their culture in order to stay hidden from the public eye and scrutiny. However, Jack Johnson flipped the status quo by fighting the racial prejudice (literally and figuratively) head-on by being himself unapologetically. Johnson was not afraid to make others angry by doing whatever he so pleased, like openly bringing white women with him around, or speeding down the road in front of the police, or saying whatever was on his mind. Although this stirred up enough controversy that it went to Congress and led to his downfall, Johnson spearheaded an early notion to civil rights.

  3. The story of Jack Johnson is one of great importance in the worlds of sport and race in the United States. Though Johnson was considered one of, if not the, premier fighters of his time. Unfortunately, the peak of his career co-existed with the Jim Crow Era. It was an unprecedented time in American race relations as even in the early 20th century, African-Americans were “free” in the most basic sense of the word, but it would still be half a century before they were ensured the rights all Americans were promised. Johnson’s story is notable in that he was one of the biggest stars in the sport of boxing, and through fighting, was able to publicly challenge the institutional racism on his people. Johnson had a unique brashness to him that was off-putting to many, even some in the black community that did not see prizefighting as a respectable way to represent his race. However, Johnson had his own methods of fighting the status quo, namely his highly public, taboo-breaking relationships with white women. The famous pugilist was extremely open with this facet of his personal life, and while it may not have earned him additional support from either blacks or progressive whites, it contributed heavily to his status, as Ken Burns mentioned, that “for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.” (Burns, Unforgivable Blackness). Johnson’s controversial nature is a stark contrast to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask”, which suggests African-Americans at the time could rarely express their true thoughts, feelings, and emotions, for fear of any further mistreatment than they were already experiencing. Johnson’s career, personality, and personal life contradicted those fears, and perhaps did more for the still-fledgling Civil Rights Movement than some of his more pacifist predecessors and contemporaries. The story of Jack Johnson is not only of one of history’s greatest boxers, it is a story of a man who put himself in both physical danger and political danger to challenge the status quo at a time where his outspokenness and courage were rarely seen.

  4. Ida B. Well’s ‘Southern Horrors’ tells of the horror experienced by negroes during turn of the 19th century, when they faced the threat of lynching for crimes so miniscule as being sassy. But the largest number of lynchings were occurring when black men turned their attention to white women. Wells gives us many morbid examples of these incidents, painting the picture of a time when vigilante mayhem ruled. It’s a terrifying thought that at any time, a mob of people who hated you solely for the color of your skin could come crashing down your front door to take your life.

    In times as these that were so frightening and threatening for members of the African-American race, the achievements of the boxer Jack Johnson stand out as truly remarkable. The talented boxer had no qualms about forming a following of women who were seen with him constantly. Though he started with black women, he soon shifted to white women. Being seen with white women alone would have been enough to have gotten him lynched, but amazingly Johnson went so far as to marry a few of them. Though he finally was arrested for his boldness after the creation of the Mann act, his actions ring out as truly rebellious and courageous. In a time where many who attended his fights would have happily hung him for a tree for his blatant disregard of cultural taboos, Johnson stood fast and practically dared for them to come get him.

  5. The world stood aghast in 1915 when Birth of a Nation heroine Lilly White plummeted to her death rather than face the sexual threat of a black man. Set to a backdrop of the rising economic and social independence of African Americans, Birth of a Nation demonstrated how the sanctity of white womanhood was used against black men to circumscribe civil liberties, heighten racial fears, and catalyze a new era of lynch law and violence against African American men. In a film lauded by the president as an accurate and exceptional retelling of American history, Birth of a Nation’s sensationalized narratives of racial threat to white morality and order catalyzed a revival of the KKK in American and ushered in a new era of violence against black men motivated by fears of interracial relations. Critical to this rise was the iconic scene of Lilly White’s death after being chased down by the African American civil war veteran Gus. The silent film narrative strongly suggests that Gus intends to rape Lilly White, committing countless transgressions in violation of the unwritten expectations surrounding interracial relationships, white women’s purity, and the subordinate nature of black men in the United States. While a fiction, the film did its part to cement the importance of white women’s purity to the coming Jim Crow years, and pit black masculinity against the sanctity of white womanhood.

    Ida B. Wells’ essays on the horrors and motivations behind “Judge Lynch” present key insights into concepts of white femininity in the Jim Crow Era. As Wells writes, many of the hundreds of lynch cases are caused by rumors, fears, and lies surrounding the nature of black men’s relationships with white women. Regardless of the real nature between any white women and lynch victim in question, Wells points out that allegations of rape, miscegenation, or even disrespect between black men and white women could lead to the victim’s brutal and public murder. Wells points out the ironies in the rise of rape allegations against black men after the civil war, and suggests that interracial relations allegations are less about the conviction that miscegenation is occurring and more of a tool to instill fear and control over black men post-reconstruction. In a correspondence to Frederik Douglass, Douglass responds that the myth of sexual threat to white women is also a cover over the possibility that white women might possibly enjoy the company of African American men. To present anything other than the myth of black male sexual aggression is to legitimize the potential of interracial relationships, and “damaging to the moral reputation of [white] women.” To uphold the moral standing of white women, black masculinity had to be constructed in threat and opposition white femininity and persecuted in such a visceral, violent, and public manner that any question of interracial relations was thoroughly destroyed.

  6. The late 19th and early 20th century was a fearful time for African Americans. White society was not prepared or ready to accept and integrate this newly-freed race in the post-emancipation landscape. Afraid and resistant to change, the white populace made African Americans view their societal role through the Caucasian lens. W.E.B DuBois discusses this aspect in his first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, in which he states “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” DuBois depicts how African American reality was warped, and that they had to see both from within themselves and outside of themselves in order to survive. They were expected to understand the predominating “natural order” of the time and fit in accordingly, with white society pushing for the least amount of change possible from the pre-emancipation status quo.

    Heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson directly contrasts DuBois’ portrayal of the African American in this society. Johnson firmly disregarded the concept of DuBois’ veil, highlighted through his actions which demonstrate that he did not care about his race. Johnson’s no-nonsense attitude gave him the audacity (for the time period) to travel with and date white women, engage in white activities, and incorporate himself into white culture. He became a hulking figure that threatened to further disrupt the American status quo by directly challenging white supremacy in the greatest test of masculinity: boxing. For the supremely educated scholar that DuBois was, he needed to understand the societal mold of the time; for the great fighter that Johnson was, he needed to cast aside this veil to fuel the fire that made him champion of the world.

  7. Ida B Wells’ treatise on lynching and D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” both provide examples of how white men utilized the sexuality of black men and white women in order to oppress both groups. In “Birth of a Nation,” Lily White is portrayed as the epitome of proper white sexuality. She’s “pure,” innocent, and passive, responding positively to displays of white male sexual prowess and white men’s attempts to exert power and control over her, while responding negatively to any expressions of black male sexuality, which is portrayed as inherently threatening. The effect of this portrayal was to demonize and shame black men for their own bodies and sexual desires, while simultaneously denying white women any sense of agency or power. Ida B Wells paints a horrifying picture of the violence that ensued when these expectations were defied. She describes how instances of consensual relations between white women and black men were censured by covering them up, denying their existence, or repainting the story to reflect more “acceptable” scripts of black men’s “animalistic” sexuality “ravaging” helpless white women. When women refused to fit into this script, they were shamed and ostracized. The consequences were almost always the harshest for black men, who were constantly faced with the threat of being lynched. Though lynchings were nearly always described as retribution for sexual violence, in reality the victim’s transgression often had nothing to do with sex, and had more to do with the victim “stepping out of their place” or exerting power or confidence in some way. By conflating any assertive actions on the part of a black man as sexual, perpetrators of lynching further demonized black sexuality, as nearly any action by a black man could be interpreted to be a sexual advance. For this reason alone, lynchings themselves can be seen as an act of sexual violence, as they were framed as a punishment for sexual expression. Furthermore, the lynchings often involved stripping and displaying the victim, or sometimes direct forms of genital mutilation, inflicting another layer of sexual violence onto the victims. Though Ida B Wells and D.W. Griffith approach the topic of sexuality and lynchings from entirely different directions, they both shed light onto how those attempting to maintain social hierarchies utilized sexuality as a weapon to achieve their goals.

  8. Both The Souls of Black Folk and Unforgivable Blackness contain overlapping ideas. Jack Johnson, a renounced African American fighter, fought as many black opponents as he could to prove he was worthy of a fight against the champion white man. After many fights he was given the opportunity at the title. The result was a victory, but many excuses were made up as to why the white man lost. This made Johnson’s win seem irrelevant and unaccredited. This is a common theme of African Americans pasts. They did not receive recognition for their achievements and this should not be forgotten. This is shown in The Souls of Black Folk because in the passage African Americans ideals are brought into conversation. It is said “he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost” (Souls) meaning that the past should not be forgotten, such as the suffering and hardships African Americans went through, but rather recognized. Johnson went through many hardships in order to achieve his goals and those goals should have been recognized differently.

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